Digital rights management, or DRM for short, are the digital locks that control the way users access and interact with digital goods. For example, you cannot copy the video off a Blu-ray disc because these discs are equipped with technological protection measures that enable the user to view the video, but not do anything else with it. These technologies were created by the content industry to combat online piracy because it was thought that classic copyright law on its own is not sufficient to protect the interests of the content industry. So the content industry thought, ‘the answer to the machine is the machine’, and created a technology to combat the piracy enabled by new internet.
But then again, there is no perfect technology, and because the objective of all content technologies at the end of the day is to deliver a certain song, video, or some other content to the end-user, all DRM technologies are susceptible to circumvention. Once a single circumvented copy of a work is made available online, it does not matter that all other copies are protected, because it only takes that one single incident of circumvention to provide all illegal sharing platforms with a source to duplicate and distribute on their networks. Even after all these years and all the DRM technologies developed, it remains extremely easy to find online illegal copies of movies and songs.
DRM did not provide a solution to piracy, and instead has limited the ability of legitimate users, who pay for the content, to properly enjoy the content they legally acquired. If you purchase a movie or a TV show episode from the iTunes Store you cannot watch it on an Android device, a PS4 or an XBox, whereas if you illegally download it you can play it on any device you want. One might say that there are numerous online video stores and you can buy your content from the store that works for your device instead of complaining about Apple’s DRM, but what if I own multiple devices, should I buy the same content multiple times just to make sure that it works on all my devices, or should I have the right to use the content the way I choose if I pay for it legally. Similarly, if a device is discontinued or a business goes bankrupt, DRM does not allow the user to make sure that the content remains usable in the future.
With that being said, we need to acknowledge that DRM has enabled the creation of some extremely useful business models that provide us as consumers with different options on how to pay for content. As DRM enables businesses to control how often a file is played or how long a file remains valid, we are now able to rent a digital file or pay for a subscription. Thanks to such technologies we now have things like Netflix and Spotify that charge us a tiny fraction of the money we used to in the past for consuming the same amount content.
I don’t think that the existence of DRM itself is the problem, the problem is the fact that many laws around the world make it illegal to circumvent DRM. As a legitimate user, I should be able to circumvent DRM if DRM restricts me from carrying out legitimate uses or subjects me or my property to risk, and companies that apply harmful DRM to content should be held accountable and punished for doing so. The law protects against the circumvention DRM irrespective of whether the work to which DRM is applied is protected by copyright (i.e. in the public domain) and irrespective of whether or not the circumvention is undertaken to carry out a use that is permitted by copyright (e.g. for the purpose of quotation or review) – this does NOT make any sense.
Even though international treaties, such as the WIPO Copyright Treaty, require States to protect against the circumvention of DRM, these treaties permit States to have exceptions to allow the public to circumvent DRM in certain cases, but not all countries take advantage of these flexibilities. For example, the copyright law in Oman does not allow ANY exceptions to the anti-circumvention measures found in Article 40(1) of the law.
DRM continues to be used in more and more online services, but if no action is taken, the restrictions imposed by DRM will override all the checks and balances that copyright law is meant to respect in order for society to fairly benefit from cultural works.